When Martha Yelled at Jesus

This week, as we celebrate the Memorial of St. Martha, we recall the importance of reading Scripture, spending time in prayer and reflecting on His Word.

By: Sr. Clare Hunter, Director of the Respect Life Office

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Many of us are familiar with the story of St. Martha. Allow me to quickly summarize:

Jesus had three friends: Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus. Once, Jesus was at their home for a meal and Martha was slaving away, doing all of the cooking and serving, while her sister Mary sat by Jesus and did not help. Martha yelled at Jesus to make Mary help her. Jesus said, “I love Mary better.” Sometime later, Lazarus got sick, Jesus refused to go to Bethany, Lazarus dies and Martha yelled at Jesus for not getting there faster and curing her brother. (Oh, Jesus eventually raises Lazarus from the dead, but we were too upset that he didn’t get there in time, so we might forget that part.)

Well, at least that’s how some tend remember the story. In fact, have you ever noticed how often we forget certain things Jesus said and did, and only remember the parts we like….or don’t like?

The story of the family at Bethany is a powerful witness of Christian friendship, family life and discipleship that each of us is called to imitate. Like most cradle Catholics, I never read the Bible. Homilies have been invaluable sources of my knowledge of Scripture and over the years I have committed to reading through the Gospels and spending time in prayer and reflection.  It is amazing that I always notice something new and realize how much I really struggle with many things Jesus says and does. But more, I have come to see how much I misread, ignore or misinterpret certain verses or accounts that quite frankly, stretch me out of my comfort zone. The story of St. Martha was always one  until I actually read what was in the Bible, and what Jesus really said.

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A number of years ago, I read the accounts we have of St. Martha in Scripture — St. Luke’s account of the dinner in which Martha served and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. As I finished St. John’s account of the death and raising of Lazarus, my eyes fell upon the other side of the page, and I noticed something surprising. I saw Martha’s name again:

“Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him” (John 12: 1-2).

I was rather shocked, as I recalled that Jesus has basically “yelled” at her for serving last time He was at their home. Why didn’t it say, “Mary and Martha were sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to Him”?

As I read Luke 10:38 – 42 slowly and reflectively, I realized I had been missing key lines and punctuation that radically changed the tone I had imposed and therefore the entire event. First of all, Martha should have been serving; she was merely fulfilling her role as a faithful Jewess hosting a Rabbi and his disciples for a meal. Furthermore, we know that she is a personal friend of Jesus, and that they love each other.

St. Luke tells us that Martha was “burdened” and when she goes to Jesus, she first asks, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?” Why was hosting a beloved friend a burden? Before “yelling” at Jesus and telling Him what to do, there is the quintessential question and fear, “Do you not care?” Isn’t she basically asking, “Jesus, don’t you love me?” I envision Martha stifling a sob and wiping away a tear. And what did Jesus say in response? In my mind it was, “Mary has chosen the better part.” Which might as well have been translated, “I love Mary more.”

But then I read what He actually said. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.” (period – end of sentence) Well, that really changes everything! He says her name. He is looking at her, and lovingly challenges her in the truth that the “burden” is not the serving, but her own anxiety and worry.  Martha had made this banquet about herself, not about friendship or love of Jesus. How well I could relate.

In calling attention to Mary, the disciple at His feet, Jesus is not telling us not to work or to serve Him or others. Unless we are rooted in God, the source of charity, then we will most likely make it all about ourselves. Burdened by our insecurities and jealousies we become anxious, worried and afraid, none of which are of God. In fact, we are told to “Be not afraid” 365 times in the Bible.

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Clearly, Martha does listen to Jesus. The final act we know of her in Scripture is that she served. What happened between those two banquets? In rereading the account in St. John’s Gospel, I realized many critical lessons. First of all, Martha had to suffer. As hard as suffering is, it was in the illness and death of Lazarus that she changed. I had imposed anger, an accusation in her words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then I read the next line which states: “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” The “accusation” really is a statement. She knows and believes who Jesus is with the words, “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” When Jesus arrives, she is not afraid, anxious or worried. She simply makes a profession of faith. She has been watching and listening to Jesus and even in the midst of the greatest heartache, she believes, trusts and loves God. Her life is about Him and so she is free to be who she is called to be: a friend, a beloved disciple of Christ, called to love and to serve.


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